What if the conspirators within the oil sands industry had not been so successful in blocking action to stop the climate emergency? What if at various points over the past six decades, leading oil companies had reckoned with their roles in bringing about the destabilisation of our atmosphere and had shared their science and powerful voices with those trying to head it off? What if they had used their political influence to push governments in the United States and Canada to synchronise each country’s carbon-reducing efforts, rather than encouraging politicians to undercut each other at every possible moment?
Such thoughts filled my mind as I approached the end of researching and writing my book, The Petroleum Papers: Inside the Far-Right Conspiracy to Cover Up Climate Change. And so, late last year, I got in touch with Joanna Sustento, a climate activist who lost her mother, father, brother, sister, and nephew to one of the world’s strongest typhoons, over Zoom wanting to ask a delicate question.
It had been nearly four years since we’d first met in Tacloban City in the Philippines. That initial conversation had taken place in a coffee shop that was underwater during Typhoon Haiyan. I’d been nervous to ask Sustento how she rebuilt her life after having everything she considered most important destroyed by climate change. Over large mugs of coffee, she answered my questions about the worst moments of her life with short, devastating anecdotes, a low-key fury, and the occasional flash of wry humour. Now, through our computer screens, I picked up the conversation: if oil and gas producers hadn’t spent decades spreading doubt and denial about climate change, I asked, is it possible that the storm that killed her family never would have happened? “Well yeah,” she replied. “I would like to think so.”
The climate emergency long predicted within the secret research departments of oil companies has finally arrived. Last year alone more than 2.6 million acres of California went up in flames, an unprecedented cold snap in Texas knocked out electricity for millions of people and the Canadian town of Lytton, British Columbia, burned to the ground during a record heat wave only to be bombarded several months later by torrential rains that caused $450 million worth of damage across the region. But the impacts didn’t have to be this painful and intense. When Bill McKibben wrote his landmark book about global warming, The End of Nature, published in 1989, he wasn’t hopeful that we’d be able to stop climate change completely. However, he told me recently, “It did not occur to me that we would perform as badly as we performed. I did not know that governments would essentially do nothing for 30 years.”
There’s a familiar list of reasons that experts cite for why the world allowed greenhouse gas emissions to keep rising so long, even though scientists like James Hansen, whose 1988 congressional testimony on climate that helped raise broad awareness of global warming, were making blatantly clear the planetary chaos those emissions were locking in. We in the West are too addicted to our polluting lifestyles. China and India needed fossil fuels to develop. The economic impacts of shifting to greener forms of energy were too damaging. Our self-serving human nature makes the collective global action required of us impossible. Through his decades of writing and activism on climate change, McKibben came to a much simpler explanation: oil and gas producers lied to protect their profits. They lied about the science being uncertain. They lied about cleaner industries destroying the economy. They lied about climate change being something for which we are all equally responsible.
Another path forward was possible. Imagine, McKibben said, that just hours after Hansen gave his congressional testimony in 1988 waking up the American public to the dangers of global warming, the CEO of Exxon went on CBS Evening News and said, “‘Our scientists are telling us pretty much the same thing. We’ve got a real problem and we’ve got to get to work.’” McKibben said, “If that happens, then we avoid this 30-year, completely pointless debate about whether global warming is real.”
Enrique Rosero, a former Exxon employee pushed out after raising the touchy subject of climate change, agreed that his former employer cost us all a huge early opportunity to get the crisis under control. “There’s no doubt we lost decades because of their delay, because of their concerted efforts to undermine science,” he said. Rosero knew from his years inside Exxon that this outcome wasn’t inevitable. The oil and gas producer wasn’t just an early expert in climate science, as were many of its corporate competitors; it was also among the first major companies to study solutions like a price on greenhouse gasemissions. It pained him to think how much climate progress could have been achieved if Exxon had used its global political reach starting in the 1990s to ensure that carbon could no longer be pumped for free into the atmosphere. “That would have significantly changed incentives for everything,” Rosero said. “It would have been so much easier to address the crisis if we’d started then.”
The timeline for deploying wind and solar and electric vehicles and everything else we need to decarbonise the global economy gets moved up by decades. Developing countries have the tools and technologies they need to lift their citizens out of poverty without destabilising the climate. By 2021, McKibben said, greenhouse emissions might have already peaked and “we’d be headed down the back- side.” Our descent would not have to be nearly as rapid or wrenching as it will be with the massive emissions cuts now required. “I think that’s the part that’s sometimes hard for people to understand. Thirty-three years ago when I wrote The End of Nature, we had a variety of options that were fairly modest.”
Instead, McKibben said, “We did literally the stupidest stuff we could do.” Near the very top of that list was tapping one of the biggest oil reserves on the planet. Not only did the Canadian oil sands lock the United States into an especially polluting form of oil, the industry also intentionally destroyed the political will necessary to get climate change under control. Bitumen from Alberta bankrolled the assault on truth led by companies such as Koch Industries and Exxon. “They’re the two most aggressive players in this space during the crucial years. They’re the ones that take a political consensus that we better do something and turn it into a Republican consensus that we won’t do anything,” McKibben said. In the sad multi-decade history of why governments didn’t act as rapidly as they could to get the climate emergency under control, he said, the oil sands “play an absolutely key role.”
During my Zoom call with Sustento, she briefly paused to consider what the world might be like today if oil executives had actually taken seriously the climate warnings given by their own scientists. She chose her words slowly and deliberately. “If they acted in a way that’s favourable for the planet, for the people, if they diverted their financial and technological capacity into cleaner sources of energy, we wouldn’t be experiencing the climate crisis.” Sustento’s thoughts returned to the storm that forever altered the course of her life. She said: “It is because of their climate denial, the seed of lies that they planted in our society, that we are the ones who are suffering.”
Adapted with permission of the publisher from The Petroleum Papers: Inside the Far-Right Conspiracy to Cover Up Climate Change, written by Geoff Dembicki and published by Greystone Books. Available wherever books are sold